Group E – Belgium, Italy, Sweden, Rep of Ireland
Prediction: Belgium, Italy, Ireland, Sweden
Group E kicks-off in Paris on Monday 13th June with arguably its biggest game.
In the new Euros format, the top two teams will qualify from the group stages, but so will the four best third-placed teams from the group stages. That gives the Republic of Ireland and Sweden a big chance to play knock-out stage football at this year’s tournament, but in order to do that, both teams surely need to win their first game of the tournament where they meet each other in Paris to kick off Group E proceedings.
Aside from that, you would expect this group to stay true to form. Belgium will be expected to go far in this tournament, taking advantage of their golden generation – though that is far from a given. The Red Devils will be without captain Vincent Kompany through injury, but Tottenham Hotspur’s solid centre back pairing of Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen should come to the fore – though one or both may find themselves inexplicably playing at full back instead.
The question mark hangs over the manager, not the playing squad. Marc Wilmots does seem to lack a plan B beyond throwing the ball long to Marouane Fellaini, a tactic witnessed in Brazil during the heady summer of 2014, and indeed throughout Euro 2016 qualifying. Fellaini himself managed four goals in qualifying whilst noted strikers Michy Batshuayi, Divock Origi, Romelu Lukaku and Christian Benteke managed just three between them. You need more than one dimension to win a major tournament, but negotiating the group stages shouldn’t be too much of a problem.
The other three have gone into past major tournaments with more optimism than this current one. Italy’s squad seems devoid of a top quality striker, and big names are thin on the ground. Sweden’s squad is littered with veterans over 30, including the likes of Andreas Isaksson, Kim Kallstrom, and of course, Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Ireland, meanwhile, will be relying on a squad’s hard work making them greater than the sum of their parts.
The battle for third will be between Ireland and Sweden, the battle for top between Belgium and Italy, but these are four teams who may play out six fixtures in a much duller fashion than you might be expecting. With Marouane Fellaini, Graziano Pelle, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Jon Walters on show, there may be more target man play than there should be.
Watch out for: a lot of hard running, shape and pressing; Zlatan Ibrahimovic brilliance; long balls to Fellaini.